Title: For the first time
Artist: Black Country, New Road
Label: Ninja Tune
Genre: Post Punk
Released: 05 February 2021

Tracklist

1. Instrumental
2. Athens, France
3. Science Fair
4. Sunglasses
5. Track X
6. Opus

BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD

For the first time

"The absolute pinnacle of British engineering"

There’s been an absolutely insane amount of hype surrounding the release of Black Country, New Road’s debut album for around a year and a half now. From people building them up to being the spiritual successors of bands such as Slint, to certain publications even going so far to name them “The Greatest Band in the World”, despite having only a handful of publicly released singles; the leadup to this album’s launch was eagerly awaited by many. And with the album finally being released, although I don’t think it’s perfect, it’s about as close as any debut could really come. “For the first time” is absolutely phenomenal. I’m not going to pretend that it’s reinventing the wheel or anything; the band wears their influences on their sleeve as clear as day, even referring to themselves as ‘The World’s Second Best Slint Tribute Act’ in the track ‘Science Fair’. But nevertheless, what Black Country, New Road have done here is something extremely special. They’re undoubtedly one of the most interesting and unique acts to have emerged in the last few years, and while I think this record only shows the tip of their potential, it’s such an incredibly good first impression that I’m amazed that it’s the product of such a young band. Like their peers Black Midi did with “Schlagenheim”, back in 2019, Black Country have blown their competition out of the water here, and I can’t even imagine what they’ll be capable of making a few years down the line with more experience.

“For the first time” is made up of six tracks that represent the first eighteen months of the band’s lifespan; what they’ve referred to as its ‘Phase one’. They’re an extremely strong act in a live setting, which is immediately evident from any footage you can find of the band, and the idea of this album was to capture the same visceral energy of their live performances in a studio recording. And this is achieved extremely well, despite sounding a little cleaner and tamer than they do in front of a crowd. The energy and superb compositional strength of the music remains, with the band pulling off some of the most ambitious and exciting music that I’ve heard as of recent. And what really sets the group apart from their contemporaries is their extremely unique style that they bring to the table. While they display their various influences quite clearly, the band blend them with their own distinct sound; clashing distorted guitars, screeching saxophones, and strings, all brought together to create beautifully layered songs.

In particular, the saxophone and violin really stand out as the backbone of the album. Whether it’s in the contemplative and soothing ‘Track X’, or the absolutely unhinged, chaotic ‘Sunglasses’, the texture that these instruments bring to the music is really interesting. It’s only when the band start to lean to heavily onto them that the music begins to falter slightly. The opening track, ‘Instrumental’, while still being a decent introduction to the album, is by far its weakest moment. Without the distinct flavour that lead singer Isaac Wood brings to the rest of the tracks, the song is left feeling a bit flat. And while the saxophone is the highlight of the album anywhere else on “For the first time”, here it delivers a repetitive and relatively milquetoast performance that isn’t properly representative of how well it features later on. However, this really is the only average moment on the record. After a slightly underwhelming open, the band deliver five absolutely incredible tracks that manage to showcase multiple facets of their style and ability, starting out with ‘Athens, France’.

This track is one of the quieter parts of the album, including many moments of reflection as Isaac reminisces on the last few years, and how they’ve shaped him and the band after the subsequent breakup of their former group ‘Nervous Conditions’. Its far more subtle than the rest of the album’s material, but manages to create absolutely gorgeous and delicate moments with this, with some soft saxophone and guitar lines over Isaac’s spoken word passages. It’s also definitely one of the most obvious sounding Slint-inspired tracks from the band, with moments from the track even sounding as though they could have been taken directly from ‘Nosferatu Man’, off of “Spiderland”. However, it does deviate from this, never sounding overtly derivative or trite. And while it’s definitely one of the more understated parts of the record, without seeming as immediately excellent as some of the material that follows it, the track really shines with repeat listens.

This is then followed by the explosive and discordant ‘Science Fair’, which includes one of the album’s most abrasive and noisy moments in its conclusion, which is one of the best parts of the entire record. The track as a whole is a tense slow burner, building slowly and gradually adding instruments until it collapses into chaos in a momentous conclusion. The band explores dissonance a lot in the track, using it to great effect in establishing and maintaining an anxious tension throughout. And once that tension is finally released, everything is brought together in a brilliant and perfect storm, with Isaac proclaiming almost biblically:

“Its Black Country out there!”

Its an absolutely fantastic moment, but somehow not even the greatest climax throughout “For the First Time”, which is undisputedly rewarded to the track that follows on from ‘Science Fair’; ‘Sunglasses’.
When I first heard ‘Sunglasses’, as a single last year, I instantly knew that it was a masterpiece. And in the context of the album, despite some slight changes done in the track’s rerecording, it remains to be the band’s most accomplished artistic statement to date. I can’t really say too much about the track except that it’s one of the most unique and incredible songs I’ve heard from the last few years, and if you haven’t heard it, you absolutely have to. The progression of the song; the energy and chaos of it; the jaw-dropping conclusion; and the newly added drone-introduction; everything about this song is extraordinary. If you haven’t heard it, I highly recommend starting here with the band, as this is them at their best and most creative.

From here, the album takes a slightly calmer turn with the serene ‘Track X’. It’s gentle, slow, and includes some really beautiful female vocal harmonies during the chorus that result in the most gorgeous moments on the whole record. Like ‘Athens, France’, it’s a reflective look at Isaac’s past, and despite being far more modest than the absolute mammoth ‘Science Fair’ or ‘Sunglasses’, it manages to be an extremely memorable part of “For the first time”, providing a moment of well earnt tranquillity after the onslaught of the previous two tracks.

And then the album hits ‘Opus’. And holy shit, what a way to end the album. As one of the only tracks that had not been released as a single prior to the album coming out, I had no idea what to expect from this song, or how they would end the record. And I’m happy to say, this is probably the next-strongest track on here, next to ‘Sunglasses’. It has the most dynamic use of the saxophone and strings on the whole album, and the payoff is nothing short of incredible. Isaac’s vocal performance reaches its best on this track, and the instrumentation is fantastic from start to finish. And once it ends, what you’re left with is one of the best debut albums of the last few years, from one of the most creative and promising acts of this coming decade.

One of the most common complaints that many have had with the album lies with the reworking of tracks ‘Athens, France’ and ‘Sunglasses’ from their original single forms. Each of these had been released as alternate recordings back in 2019, which had been the initial fuel for the hype surrounding the band. And due to this, I think many people were disappointed to hear versions that even slightly deviated from what they already knew and loved. And while I think there are arguments to be made as to whether ‘Sunglasses’ included a better vocal performance in its earlier version, or if the lyrical changes made to ‘Athens, France’ diminish the track as a whole, both of these are absolutely stunning tracks regardless. The compositional brilliance of the tracks remains, and no slight changes to either of them could really detract from that. On top of this, while the songs have lost a bit of their edge due to a stabler vocal performance from Isaac and some cleaner production, this also results in moments that actually surpass the originals in execution. The ending of ‘Sunglasses’ hits even harder this time around, with an absolutely destructive and relentless climax as it reaches past its eight-minute mark. And on the hand of ‘Athens, France’, while the lyrical changes have changed the meaning behind the song entirely, it’s clear exactly why this decision was made. The original alluded to some fairly heavy personal information that Isaac has since stated that he regretted releasing out into the public, especially with the huge success of the band since ‘Sunglasses’. And the lyrical changes even address this directly, swapping out lines as Isaac acknowledges his distaste for his own oversharing;

“She flies to Paris, France, I come down in her childhood bed
And write the words I'll one day wish that I had never said
Now all that I became must die before the forum thread
The cursed vultures feed and spread the seeded daily bread”

No Matter the version that you listen to, these songs are fantastic, and an absolutely incredible major opening statement for the band. Apparently, the group have already started considering material for their next release, which will most likely include newer music that they may not have debuted live yet. And while this album is excellent, I feel like the group have even more potential that they haven’t even begun to tap into yet. These guys are something really special, and I have a feeling we’re going to be hearing a lot more about them over the next decade, where I’m sure they’ll become one of the most celebrated groups of their time. I am extremely excited to hear more from them, but for now, this album is good enough that I’ll most likely still be listening to it until they do decide to drop something new. Along with Black Midi, Black Country, New Road are paving the way for an extremely exciting new creative movement over the next few years, and I cannot describe just how excited I am to be able to experience that.

"I'm more than adequate
Leave Kanye out of this
Leave your Sertraline in the cabinet
And burn what's left of all the cards you kept"

Reviewed by Layton Bryce - 08/02/21
9/10
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